Short of being arrested for treason, being relieved for cause is the single most devastating indictment that can be imposed on a serving United States military officer. In American history, the most famous such examples are the relief of Major General George B. McClellan by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 during the Civil War, the relief of Admiral Husband Kimmel after the Pearl Harbor disaster in World War II, and the firing of General Douglas MacArthur in 1951 during the Korean War.
There have been others. In 1942 during the Guadalcanal campaign, the Commander of the Pacific Ocean Area, Admiral Chester Nimitz, relieved Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley as commander of the South Pacific, and two years later, Marine Corps Lieutenant General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith relieved Army Major General Ralph Smith during the fierce fighting on Saipan.
The justification in most of these cases was operational failure—a perception that the commander was simply not effective. McClellan, in Lincoln’s famous phrase, had “the slows” and was unwilling to come to grips with the enemy. Kimmel lost his job because public morale was so depressed after the Pearl Harbor attack that someone had to be held responsible. Rightly or wrongly, both Ghormley and Ralph Smith were perceived to be insufficiently aggressive.
But politics, too, can play a role in such decisions. In addition to his foot dragging, McClellan was a vocal opponent of Lincoln’s war policy. He made it clear, both to Lincoln and to the public, that he thought it was essential to fight only the southern armies, and not its people who, after all, were Americans, too. And he was appalled by the notion that the war might result in the emancipation of the slave population; McClellan wanted no part of leading an army of emancipation. He also felt it was appropriate for him to tell the administration what its policy should be. In the end, however, it was not for his political views but his foot dragging that Lincoln fired him. Nevertheless, within two years, McClellan was running against Lincoln for president.
There was also a strong political component in the most famous dismissal in recent American history: that of Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. After the Chinese Red Army entered the war in the winter of 1950-51, Truman sought to find a way out of the expanding war rather than extend it into China itself, which MacArthur insisted was necessary. Despite being ordered not to promote his views in public, MacArthur wrote a letter to Republican Congressman William Martin of Massachusetts. (It was in this letter that MacArthur proclaimed, “There is no substitute for victory.”) Martin published the letter in the Congressional Record in an obvious effort to influence public opinion in favor of a wider war. Because Truman had ordered MacArthur not to communicate his views to the public, he saw this as open defiance and ordered that MacArthur should be relieved of his command.
All of these historic examples took place in wartime when a swift decision was considered essential either to prevent a disaster or to hasten victory. The removal of a commanding officer for cause in peacetime is rare. When it does happen it is often because an individual has challenged his superiors in confrontational or even mutinous ways, advocating actions that are out of line with government policy.
In the case of Captain Brett Crozier, the justification for his relief is that he violated the chain of command. By allowing copies of his letter about the health of his sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt to become public, Acting Navy Secretary Modly explained, Crozier violated the chain of command and exposed the Navy to criticism.
Significantly, that chain of command does not go from the captain of an aircraft carrier to the Secretary of the Navy. It goes first to the task force commander. Every U.S. Navy aircraft carrier has both a captain, who runs the ship on a day-to-day basis, and a Group Commander, usually a rear admiral, who has a suite of offices (“flag quarters”) on the carrier, and who commands the task force that includes not only the carrier, but also a guided missile cruiser (in this case, the USS Bunker Hill) and a destroyer squadron (here DesRon 23). The chain of command then extends upward from the Group Commander to the Pacific Fleet commander, and then to the Chief of Naval Operations before it reaches the Secretary of the Navy. A letter of concern such as the one written by Captain Crozier would ordinarily pass up the various links in this chain of command before arriving at the Secretary’s desk. We don’t know at what point, or even if, someone in that chain determined that taking the Theodore Roosevelt (“The Big Stick”) temporarily out of service was too risky. We also don’t know how a copy of Captain Crozier’s letter ended up in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Like all Navy officers, the captain of a ship, or for that matter, the commander of a strike group, and even the Secretary of the Navy, is both accountable to his superiors, and also responsible to the men and women he commands. Balancing those obligations can be difficult, even wrenching. There is no textbook answer about how to proceed; each circumstance, each decision, is unique. Command is lonely and burdensome precisely because all U.S. Navy officers know that they must be prepared to accept the consequences of their decisions, whatever they may be.
Craig L. Symonds is the Ernest J. King Distinguished Professor of Maritime History at the Naval War College and Professor Emeritus at the U.S Naval Academy.